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Santa Cruz’s Fireworks Battle

County launches efforts to end status as destination for illegal fireworks shows

As the Fourth of July approaches, District 2 County Supervisor Zach Friend has unveiled a new set of measures aimed at curbing illegal summertime fireworks in the county. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

It begins in May, sporadic at first.

It builds steadily to a crescendo in early July, before leveling off and holding steady until August peters into September.

The whistle and bang. The crackle and pop. The occasional jarring boom.

“Fireworks are a big issue,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend at a recent community meeting in Rio Del Mar. “It’s not just about one night, either. It’s every night throughout the entire summer. It seems like it wakes up my 1-year-old every night.”

Fireworks persist throughout summer evenings in Santa Cruz despite a strict ban throughout most of the county.

Increasingly, Friend and other officials are fielding a plethora of complaints from residents who say the intermittent blasts are traumatizing their pets, causing veterans issues related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or simply impinging on the peace and quiet of otherwise calm summer nights.

During a June meeting at the Rio Sands Hotel in Aptos with sheriff and fire officials, Friend unveiled a new set of measures aimed at curtailing the fireworks that amateur pyro-technicians launch into the sky—especially on the Fourth of July at the beach.

Friend says that one step toward curbing  illegal fireworks is educating locals about the law. The county has been purchasing ads in the counties of Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito, as well as in the Central Valley. Many of the tourists who come to Santa Cruz in the summer to vacation aren’t aware that fireworks are illegal around the county (except in Watsonville, where “safe and sane” fireworks are sold from July 1 through July 4, with proceeds going to community nonprofits).

County workers are also sending letters to vacation rental owners to let them know they are liable for infractions of the fireworks ordinance, while other officials work with parents through the schools.

The sheriff’s office is also beefing up enforcement, mobilizing additional deputies in the days leading up to the Fourth of July. There will be 13 deputies assigned to patrol the beach area during the day on July 4, and 26 during the night, as well as increased signage and triple fines for setting off fireworks on the Fourth that could run as high as $1,500.

But after hearing about the county redoubling its outreach and patrol efforts, some people at the meeting suggested that the police presence along the beach already goes too far. One woman said she’s grown tired of seeing “the Fourth of July turned into a police state.”

“This is America, and Fourth of July means fireworks,” resident Liz Karzag said. “You are not going to stop it.”

Even people who don’t think the tradition is a blast have expressed doubts about anti-fireworks enforcement. They say that cutting off beach access for the many drunken enthusiasts blasting them off only sends them into residential areas. “I don’t condone fireworks all year round,” said Mary Dixon, a resident of the area. “But you scare these people off the beach and they go inland and do damage to our neighborhoods.”

Dixon also added that there is more of a chance of wildland fires the farther inland people go—a worry echoed by Mike Conrad, fire chief of the Aptos/La Selva district.

“The biggest concern is Larkin Valley and Day Valley, because there is a potential to create a significant fire event,” Conrad said at the meeting. “We don’t want to get it pushed back to the mountain side of Highway 1.”

Sheriff Jim Hart conceded that barricading the beaches and performing rigorous searching of bags has produced the unintended consequence of driving more fireworks usage into the neighborhoods around the beach.

“In the past, we routinely had stabbings and shootings on the beach,” Hart said. “So we worked on funneling foot traffic so we could look into backpacks, but it has gotten fireworks off the beach and into the neighborhoods.”

Hart mentioned the robust patrols planned for this year’s event will concentrate on neighborhoods in proximity to beaches, and that the county will ease barricade and search operations at county beaches. But State Parks will maintain barricades on state beaches like Seabright State Beach and Seacliff State Beach.

In the city of Santa Cruz, the city council passed its annual safety enhancement zone, which triples fines for a dozen violations—including fireworks, open-container and noise violations—and extended the zone from the beach area to the entire city for the holiday weekend.

At the county meeting, many locals attested to enjoying the amateur fireworks display, arguing that the county should adopt a formal policy of making fireworks legal on the Fourth and vigorously enforce infractions during other parts of the summer, when residents are less prepared for sudden explosions.

Friend balked at the idea, saying nobody would “really want the county to be liable for an injury to any kid for allowing this type of permissive activity.”

In response, resident Monica McGuire suggested that simply erecting signs telling people their activities are at their own risk might solve the problem, but county officials say that would still create a legal and safety nightmare.

Additionally, Katherine O’Dea, executive director of Save Our Shores, says that while the beach is indeed more fire-safe than inland areas, guerilla fireworks and debris can wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem. And unexploded rockets pose a safety threat to those who volunteer to clean up garbage on the morning after the holiday.

“It’s a polarizing issue,” Hart says. “The vast majority of people don’t want fireworks in their neighborhood. But some people standing on the bluff over the ocean want to see a great show on a national holiday. We have to work with that group as well.”

Friend has suggested hosting a professional fireworks show as a possible solution. In recent years, both city and county workers have suggested that might alleviate some of the demand from people who want to see things blow up. Friend says the major hurdle is cost, and tells GT that running a professional show would take about the same number of officers as the county already has on patrol for the holiday—along with members of the fire department, insurance and related costs.

“How could we justify taking a sheriff’s deputy off the street to put on a fireworks show?” Friend says.

The county has entered into discussions about partnering with local businesses and sponsors to kick in the necessary dollars to make such a show a reality. But considering the expense, those talks are extremely preliminary.

The city has looked at hosting a professional fireworks display down by the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. But after receiving a tepid response from Santa Cruz Seaside Company, coupled with fears about how an enormous crowd would snarl traffic and make it nearly impossible for first responders to react to an emergency, the city abandoned those plans, says Scott Collins, assistant to the city manager.

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